collateral beauty

review by caolainn daly

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Collateral Beauty is a problematic film. It is a life-affirming drama that offers one moment of poignancy for every three moments of drivel. The film offers up a star-studded cast of Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Naomie Harris, Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren, and provides them with a script that complements the talents of not even one of these actors. The result is a film that is quite a bit less than the sum of its parts.

The premise is quite peculiar and doesn’t bomb, but doesn’t quite work either. Howard Inlet (Will Smith) is the co-owner of a thriving advertising company. The film opens with a speech where he heralds the three virtues of the world: death, love, and time. Fast forward three years and his life is in turmoil. Guess what he blames for his problems: death, love, and time. He writes letters to these three ‘abstractions’ (get used to that phrase being uttered) to help deal with the loss of his daughter. Three of his co-workers, one of which is his supposed best buddy (played by Edward Norton), cook up a plan. They hire three actors to play the three abstractions and confront Howard to try and help him overcome his grief, at least initially. This scheme boils over and mutates into a master plan to extort Howard of his part of the company by proving he is in an unfit state of mind (for which they hire a PI to keep tabs on him). This is where the message of the film becomes problematic.

The three co-workers of Howard are horrible people. They firstly exploit the ill health of Howard by tricking him into believing the ruse they’ve constructed, but they also stab him in the back for a bigger payday, and this is completely glossed over and ignored. It feels like they identified the issues they could explore, put them into a big old hat and picked out two or three to focus on and hoped for the best. What we get is a moral that is self-contradictory at best, and quite satanic at worst. The film urges one to focus on the ‘collateral beauty’ of life, the profound connection to Everything (with a capital E).

The three abstractions are played by fictional actors. They work to offer up some heavy-handed meta-drama, with Helen Mirren at the helm as the affable Death, Keira Knightley as the conscientious Love and Jacob Lattimore as the outspoken Time. They, all in turn, confront Howard over his letters (which the PI managed to nab from the post box) and provide us with some good character interaction. I wish there was more of it. The talents of everyone involved in the film are all heartbreakingly underutilised. While the film depicts Howard’s journey through grief, it is done so unconvincingly and with more than a hint of contrivance. It feels hurried. This is partly because the film takes on quite a lot. It contains three subplots involving each of the three abstractions that run completely tangentially to the main story. They help the three horrible people with their own troubles in a way that allows none of their character arcs to converge. The result is a story that is unfocused and unfinished. It’s all okay, though, because we get a final-act twist that plasters the arcs together with glue stick (i.e. not very well).

What breaks my heart above all is that I feel that the film could have been so much better. Having watched the trailer, I expected a different film and maybe that is why I was so disappointed. I feel that the film we are given is one that is disingenuous, fractured, and in fact quite obtuse with its handling of mental illness and grief. For me it was a let-down.